Zeno Clash 2’s wonderland of horrors just isn’t the same the second time around
Zeno Clash 2
Zeno Clash 2 is not a bad game, but it is a bad sequel. The original title was a wildly inventive game that introduced the world to an amazing new perspective on first-person combat and interactive art, but somewhere in the transition from ZC1 to ZC2, the experience has lost its edge. The problem is that the very nature of a sequel is anathema to the new and innovative ideas that ZC is known for.
The goal with the sequel seems to have been to take everything that made the first game great and make it bigger and more impressive. Unfortunately, I think there's been a misunderstanding about what made ZC1 so fantastic.
Say something once, why say it again
At its core, ZC2 is still the same game as the original. The story continues where the first game left off, and the combat is more or less unchanged. It's still a first-person action-adventure game with combat that's a lot like boxing with some light focus on guns, sledgehammers and some other melee weapons. This was a very interesting mechanic in the first game, but three years later it feels like a retread. Without the sense of innovation in the combat system it is markedly less interesting this time around.
The best option for a proper sequel would have been to make something wholly new that stayed true to the original game's sense of wonder. Retreading ground to revisit the ideas of the first game is flawed, the sense of oddity is lost. Without it, ZC2 is entirely too focused on its bizarre storyline and familiar combat.
The result is a game that tried to keep the aesthetic and core mechanics of ZC1, while making the rest of the experience bigger. The bizarre landscapes and characters are still around, it still has the same surreal vibe, and the innovative first-person-puncher combat system is back as well. However, since these things are all retreads of the original, we're left with a game that feels uninspired.
The game's developer, ACE Team is clearly a studio that thrives when they're at work on something unique and new. Both ZC1 and Rock of Ages were wonderful games that overcame their relatively simplistic gameplay by offering something that felt new and original.
In a recent interview they told me that they had no intention of working on more of the same types of games they've already done, and I'm left wondering if that's a reaction to the experience they've gleaned from ZC2. These are creators who thrive on innovation, and are wasted on iteration.
The big missteps in ZC2 boil down to trying to do too much. The environments, for example, have opened up to become semi-open with multiple paths to any destination. It sounds like a good idea on paper to let the player explore more of the wonderful environments of ZC1, but in practice these new levels are more annoying than thrilling.
It can occasionally be nice to take a walk around a city block to look at the architecture, but more often than not the open levels are confusing and difficult to navigate. The map and waypoint systems are all but useless, and it's much too easy to get lost.
ZC2 actually forces you to explore these environments. Skill points are hidden in out-of-the-way places, skill points that you'll need in order to level up your health, punching power, leadership (how many allies you can have,) and stamina.
It's one thing for a game to reward a player for thoroughly exploring the environment, but it's entirely another to punish players who don't. If you don't find enough skill points then you'll find yourself too weak to fight against the tougher enemies.
Still, despite it's flaws, there's something magical about the experience. ACE Team is remarkably adept at creating art and characters that are otherworldly and surreal. Even the character's speech patterns may cause you to feel strange and uneasy. It's worth playing just to see the next interesting piece of design around the corner.
Wait…what's a Father-Mother?
This also applies to the story. The main character of the series, Ghat, returns and this tale sees him and his companion, Rimat, fighting to rescue Father-Mother from prison. What's a Father-Mother? Why it's a large 10-foot-tall bird creature that pretends to give birth to large numbers of humans, but is actually just a rampant baby thief. Later, the story evolves into our hero's attempts to stop a creature called Golem from implementing law and justice in the land.
It all seems to be a rumination on the nature of punishment, the right of people to live in whatever way comes naturally to them, even if it's savage, and the inherent injustice in someone else telling you what justice is. It's undoubtedly an interesting game, and there's still value to be found in journeying through this bizarre landscape with these equally bizarre characters.
If you were left confused and bewildered by the ending of ZC1 then ZC2 might help alleviate the feeling of incompletion, but those who are new to the series will find themselves lost in the wave of oddities that is ZC2's story. It's not unintelligible, but it assumes knowledge of the first game in order to understand the way people act toward one another.
Zeno Clash 2 has its moments, and I was drawn in regularly by the boxing-style combat, even if it isn't exactly new. However, it's hard to shake the feeling that another trip to this world was a waste of a creative developer's time.